I’m sitting, cramped and crooked, in the aisle of a bus from Eilat to Tel Aviv – a six hour trip – and I figure now is as good a time as ever to start writing about what I’ve seen and experienced in the past couple weeks (hopefully it will also help to take my mind off the numbness in my legs). Today is my birthday, so Paul, Stu and I are booking it up north to celebrate in Israel’s city that never sleeps. Let’s take it from the top…
We broke from the group in Jerusalem two weeks ago to wander the streets of the Old City, one of the most historically significant plots of land to the western world. Our goal was to enter or exit through all seven gates surrounding the walled city, which is only one square kilometer (1/3 of a mile). In doing so, we hit all four Quarters, each with some epically historic sites to see. There’s the Dome of the Rock in the Muslim Quarter, an area sprinkled with colorful graffiti and winner of the Most Interesting Street Market Award (fried heart anyone?); the Jewish Quarter, where you’ll find the Western Wall (aptly nicknamed “God’s Facebook wall” with hundreds of thousands of personal messages carefully rolled up and tucked into the nooks and crannies of this 20-century old structure); the Christian Quarter, which is home to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus was (read: may have been) crucified and (possibly) buried. (When hearing stories about the sites around Israel, most bold statements are capped off with a “said to be” or “could have been,” which often detracts from their historic credibility, but adds an alluring mysticism and some room for thought.) And lastly, there’s the Armenian Quarter… the Armenian Quarter.
These landmarks, the Temple Mount itself, and the narrow winding walkways built entirely of pale limestone make Jerusalem’s Old City a breathtaking site of pilgrimage for all three major religions. It’s inspiring to witness the raw emotion that this city – a tiny piece of ancient land – can evoke from Israeli soldiers, Greek mothers and Algerian farmers alike. It’s a testament to how small the world once was, and how similar, at their core, these religions are ideologically and geographically. Even if you are not religious, the fact that western society essentially began on this very mount of soil – and the collective spirituality that this idea provokes – is a Kool-Aid worth taking a sip of.
From Jerusalem we travelled south in a bus chock full o’ Israeli soldiers to Makhtesh Ramon in the Negev Desert. (Ever talk to a girl sporting a loaded semi-automatic rifle? Cross that off my bucket list.) Makhtesh is loosely translated as “crater” in English, but this is misleading, as the term “crater” suggests an explosive indentation in the surface (think meteors, volcanic eruptions, etc.). A makhtesh, on the other hand, is uniquely created by gradual erosion, formed by cracks in elevated layers of limestone under which the sand blows away, leaving gaps (craters) that grow larger over millions upon millions of years. Makhtesh are unique to the area around the Dead Sea (i.e the Negev Desert and Sinai) – making Makhtesh Ramon the largest in the world! – and so, the universal term for this geological phenomenon is… makhtesh!
Sorry for the National Geographic moment, but the landscape views are unlike any other in the world and it’s worth mentioning to appreciate the pictures. After millions of years, it’s more than just limestone and sand on a mountain, but fossilized life forms, volcanic remains, red clay and several other gorgeous stone structures that make for this incredible landscape. It really puts the relativity of time into perspective, that these rocks have been building, breaking and reforming since dinosaurs roamed the Holy Land.
After the hike, it was sundown, and we wound up smack in the center of a highway. Our only options were to walk twenty miles in the pitch black, or hitchhike back to town. So we stuck out our thumbs, and lo, the first van to pass – albeit with shades covering the back seats from seeing in or out – stopped, let us in, and the rest is history. (Actually, I’ve heard that hitchhiking is pretty common and accepted in Israel, so I might be doing some more of that along the way!)
In Mishpeh Ramon – the city on the edge of Makhtesh Ramon (and the only civilization for miles) – we stayed at a hostel called “The Green Backpackers,” where we met a washed up, twenty-something ex-pat named Spencer. Spencer, a journalist by trade, has bummed around Israel for the last eighteen months, landing in obscure locations wherever the wind takes him. Paul, Stu and I arrived at the hostel with an ambitious four-day itinerary to stay in Mishpeh Ramon for the night, head through the Negev to Eilat in order to cross into Petra (Jordan) for a day – one of the seven wonders of the world – and hustle back to Eilat in time for a Shabbat bus ride to Tel Aviv for my birthday. But price, timing and a general desire to stay off our feet after two weeks of running around strayed us from that plan. Instead, our convincing journalist friend told us about a slice of heaven about forty kilometers across the Egyptian border. A little place called Sababa Camp in a Bedouin village loosely referred to as Nuweiba. The next day, we were on our way to Egypt.